Modernism: The Lure of Heresy - From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond by Peter Gay

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Modernism: The Lure of Heresy - From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond by Peter Gay

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A stunningly ambitious history of the Modernism movement in art, literature, music and architecture by American cultural historian Peter Gay provides a compelling synthesis to the myriad of strands of the Modernist movement that will be essential reading for A level and undergraduate students as well as providing interest for the more casual reader.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 640 Date: December 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099441960

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It is impossible not to be impressed by the sheer scope of cultural historian Peter Gay's 2007 study of Modernism, newly released in this paperback edition. He notes in the introduction that it is not a 'comprehensive history' but rather 'a study of its rise, triumphs, and decline'. What is remarkable though, is the attempt to include the whole gamut of artistic fields in this coherent study.

The Modernism movement, broadly ranging from the mid 19th century to the end of the 20th century, encompassed many varied trends, but Gay defines the underlying moves behind these as a duel 'lure of heresy' (the drive to be different and to challenge convention) as well as a tendency towards self-scrutiny. Ironically for the topic, his approach is entirely conventional - he begins with a definition, moves to general themes before considering each major area (art and sculpture; literature; music and dance; architecture; drama and movies), coverage of the cultural and political environment and concludes with considerations of the decline of these movements.

Although it's easy to pick holes in the coverage in this vast range, I was surprised to see little attention to photography or to the work of Brecht in theatre, but everyone will have their own views on what could have been included.

So who is this book aimed at? Certainly if you thought the BBC's series The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was the limit of your interest in artistic innovation, then this will be too heavy going for you. It's unashamedly academic with more than a hundred pages of index, bibliographic notes and sources. Stylistically, Peter Gay sits somewhere between Simon Schama and the drier Peter Ackroyd and is eminently readable and interesting. True, I struggled with the first hundred or so pages, being unfamiliar with the subject enough to appreciate his arguments, but the individual chapters on the specific areas made clear and logical sense. I re-read the first pages on completing the book and things became much clearer to me. An intelligent A level student or undergraduate in any of the disciplines covered would find much of value here and Gay offers many quotable offerings for essays.

One criticism I do have of the book though is in the illustrations. The publishers claim it is 'lavishly illustrated' which is over-egging it somewhat. True, there are sixteen pages of nicely produced colour plates, while the text is interspersed with black and white cartoons, photographs and reproductions of art work. The cartoons and photographs work perfectly well, but so much is lost in the art works shown in black and white that it is almost pointless. Even more frustratingly, many of the black and white images are reproductions of the images shown in the colour plates. Why? If I have a colour print of the Norwegian classic The Scream, do I really also need a poorly produced black and white version as well? Surely a case of 'too Munch of a good thing'.

Particularly in the chapters on art and architecture, more illustrations of the works being discussed would have made this even more valuable for the more casual reader. And certainly, an interest in the subject matter is helpful - my knowledge and appreciation of classical music borders on 'heathen' and so, unsurprisingly, this chapter washed over me a bit - although that is more a fault in this reader than with the book.

Although he covers the decline of Modernism, it would have been interesting to cover some of the start of 'postmodernism' (a term he only uses once in the whole book). But to be fair, he had enough on his plate covering such a broad topic in the first place.

There is no denying that this is a very impressive book though and you get a lot of learning for the price of a paperback. And I even impressed myself by being able to answer a series of questions on modernism on University Challenge last night - if only the contestants had read this book first!

Many thanks to the publishers, Vintage, for inviting The Bookbag to review this book.

If your interest in modernist fiction is stimulated by this book, Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad comes highly recommended.

Buy Modernism: The Lure of Heresy - From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond by Peter Gay at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Modernism: The Lure of Heresy - From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond by Peter Gay at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Modernism: The Lure of Heresy - From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond by Peter Gay at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Modernism: The Lure of Heresy - From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond by Peter Gay at Amazon.com.


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